Coquimbo, Chile: Escaping to the Tranquil Cove of Guanaqueros

Growing up with all four seasons, I shouldn’t have been so surprised by how much winter in the Valle de Elqui would affect me. After all, I fled the brutal, snowy winters of New England for the desert climates of northern Chile.

In Boston, you are able to escape inside to central heating and (mostly) insulated walls and windows; not so much in the Valle de Elqui. When winter’s chill sets in, it creeps into your bones.

Just like a dog, I would sit out on a warm rock by the river to absorb the few warm rays of sunshine before the sun dipped behind the mountains of the valleys and the cold came back full force.

Unlike in the US, where you can sprint from heated building to heated building and keep a decent level of productivity, the cold of northern Chile made me want to hide under the covers all day. When I had to get work done, I parked myself next to the space heater, wrapped in a blanket, alpaca shawl, and wool handwarmers, drinking mate.

These dramatic day and nighttime temperatures jarred me into living by the seasons again, recognizing that each moment is temporary, noticing how my energy ebbed and flowed between seasons.

By midwinter in July, I was exhausted, mentally, physically, and spiritually. I was ready to escape to Guanaqueros.

Traveling to Guanaqueros

At this halfway point in my year living and working in the Valle de Elqui, the old was dying out in order to make room for the new. The eagerness and anticipation of a new job and new style of life had faded as things got real.

Like so many international teaching programs, there was lack of clarity between the two organizations I worked with. Like so many families, my host family faced a medical challenge that dominated our home life. Like so many city dwellers, I was shocked by the inconsistent internet connectivity in the mountains. Boy, did I learn to adjust expectations.

So when I planned our mid-year retreat to check-in, evaluate, and set goals for the second half of the year, I knew we had to head to the beach. The open ocean and gorgeous seaside scenery was going to serve us well.

En route to Guanaqueros from Coquimbo, we started appreciating the long coastline with its sharply descending cliffs and sparsely populated beach resort villages. The Pacific beckoned to us with blue waters and clear blue skies.

Tranquil Guanaqueros

Arriving in Guanaqueros, we were thrilled with how tranquil the village is. During high season in the South American summer (December to February), the beach would be packed. But midwinter we were nearly the only people strolling along the sand.

Leaving the desert mountains for a bit, we needed to just listen to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and feel the sun starting to melt away our stress from so many recent changes. After living in San Diego and Lima, I know how important the ocean is to restoring my peace of mind and I seek it out whenever possible when I need to settle my thoughts (exhibits A, B, C, and D!).

Our visit happened to coincide with the 2015 Copa América championships, which meant that people were mostly glued to their TV, rooting for Chile’s selección to win.

(And win they did! These hills were resounding with cheering, honking, and loud celebrating a little later on that night! It was fun to see the glory of a win in such a small town.)

Because Guanaqueros is so small, the services for travelers are all situated along the main road. Restaurants, small convenience stores, and lodging are all within walking distance of the beach.

Because Guanaqueros is a town geared towards Chilean travelers, most of the lodging options are “apart hotels,” small apartments with kitchens and bunk beds. Most Chileans travel with their extended family or with their friends and their families and cook many of their own meals.

For the fish-lovers, Guanaqueros has a number of restaurants dedicated to serving up the freshest food, but as a vegetarian, I opted for this amazing fresh salad (with the ever-present papas con mayo) and a giant empanada.

Although we came to Guanaqueros to get work done, we decided to hold several of our sessions while walking and talking on the beach. You can’t miss the opportunity to see a beautiful sunset over the ocean when you get it!

The skyline turned pink as the sun disappeared behind the hills, creating a beautiful glow that reminded me of the amazing sunsets I experienced in Tortugas in northern Peru and on Easter Island.

What we needed most at this mid-winter moment was to connect – to connect with the country beyond our tiny towns in the Valle de Elqui, to connect with each other outside of our normal routines, to connect with the moment through our experience of nature’s beauty.

I mean, what’s better about being in a town where all there is to do is walk along the beach and watch the sunset. That’s serious relaxation – when there is literally nothing else to do, you appreciate the views so much more.

I mean, really. Can you believe that no one else was there? I suppose it helps that the homes are built into the hills with these great views each and every day! 🙂

Although I’ve managed to capture many moments of my year in Chile, this one happened to slip by me. But I think it serves as a nice metaphor for what I’m feeling right now, waiting for spring to finally arrive after a long, snowy winter in New England.

It’s normal to get quiet, go within, disappear for a bit as the days get shorter and the cold gets deeper. But there comes a moment when you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you start feeling that stir within, setting new goals, moving forward.

It’s taken me several stints living abroad to understand that I need lots of time to process my experience, to appreciate everything I went through, and especially how much I learned from creating new routines, perspectives, and relationships while living in another culture.

Back when I used to shoot film, the process of developing the photos took some time and required patience. No instant gratification like today; instead, I found myself reliving my trip when I received my prints, organized them in my photo album, and finally shared them with friends.

Maybe that’s why I like revisiting my photos a year or two later, when I’ve had time to integrate the memories, and I can appreciate the emotion coming through.

For us, Guanaqueros marked the halfway point of a crazy year, and we left with renewed energy and optimism for what lay ahead. And what do you know? Things got significantly better as we moved into a new season, taking with us all the lessons we learned, and leaving behind anything that was weighing us down.

Maybe you’re not looking for a transformative beach experience (but let’s be honest – beach escapes are always about transformation!). You should still make an effort to get to Guanaqueros if you’re spending any time in La Serena during your trip around northern Chile – the seaside views and low-key vibes are worth it.

Recommendations for Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile:

  • If you’re looking to truly experience the seaside vibe of this part of the Chilean coast, skip the urban beaches of La Serena and Coquimbo and head to Guanaqueros. To get to Guanaqueros, head to the bus station in Coquimbo and then look for the buses to Tongoy and Guanaqueros or get a colectivo (shared taxi) to Guanaqueros. The shared taxi should cost about CLP$2500 per person.
  • Guanaqueros is a fishing cove located down the cliffs to the beach, so en route you’ll experience amazing views of the ocean – have your camera ready!
  • Guanaqueros has several small stores where you can buy snacks, wine, and other supplies, but if you anticipate cooking a lot, you probably want to go shopping in La Serena or Coquimbo.
  • For food, there are several restaurants, but the best option is probably the market with several food stands, where food is fresh and inexpensive.
  • I recommend staying in Hostal Akitespero, which has a very friendly owner and comfortable mini apartments with kitchens.
[Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile: July 3-5, 2015]

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